Church Under Scrutiny by IRS for Anti-War Sermon

One of the largest and most liberal Episcopal Churches in Southern California is under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for an anti-war sermon that was preached prior to the 2004 presidential elections.

One of the largest and most liberal Episcopal Churches in Southern California is under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for an anti-war sermon that was preached prior to the 2004 presidential elections.

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told congregants on Nov. 6 that he had received a letter from the IRS that said the church is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status. The sermon in question was delivered by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004 – just two days before the elections. Rev. Regas, who retired from the church in 1995, spoke as a guest preacher.

In the sermon, Regas imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry, according to L.A. Times. Regas said “good people of profound faith” could vote for either candidate and he did not tell parishioners whom to support, but he made clear his opposition to many of the Bush administration’s policies on war, abortion, and the federal budget.

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During the sermon entitled “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush,” Regas said Jesus would have told Bush, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster."

He also said the “religious right has drowned out everyone else.”

“Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American…” Regas preached. “I'm not pro-abortion, but pro-choice. There is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child."

The Rev. Bacon, the church’s current rector, said in a press release that the church has “broken no rules” and that the “IRS’s Concerns are unsupported by the facts.” He placed a difference between Regas preaching his views and soliciting particular political support.

“The sermon explicitly ended with ‘when you go into the voting booth on Tuesday, take with you all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker. Take all that Jesus means to you. Then vote your deepest values,’” Bacon said. “We have a diligently enforced policy against campaign intervention and will continue to maintain our nonpartisan stance with commitment and integrity.”

Federal tax law prohibits tax-exempt organizations – including churches – from partaking in political campaigns. Though it has rarely happened, even a single violation may be punishable with a revocation of the organization’s tax-exempt status, if proven.

This IRS policy has ruffled the feathers of churches and pastors on all rungs of the theological spectrum. According to speakers from a panel discussion by the Pew Forum, both conservatives and liberals have complained that they get “harassed” and “intimidated” by the IRS.

In the case of All Saints Church, Bacon said despite the scare, his church “cannot and will not waiver.”

“I don’t believe the law requires us to mandate that a preacher’s sermons may not discuss core moral values during worship,” Bacon said. “Teaching moral values is, after all, one of the Church’s main functions, and to suggest that a preacher may not preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election is in fact an affront to all who have given their lives to preserve just these liberties.”

The church received the letter from the IRS on June 9. After this inquiry, the church provided the IRS with a copy of all literature given out before the election and copies of its policies, but the IRS recently informed the church that it was not satisfied by those materials, according to Bacon.

The church hired a Washington-based private law firm that specializes in tax-exempt organizations to help with the case.

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